Applying Alabama Law To Foreign Child Judgments

What happens when Alabama courts confront a child support judgment from another state? Which state’s law applies to what? The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals provided some answers in C.K. v. J.M.S., Case No. 2040206 (Ala. Civ. App. December 16, 2005). In a nutshell, the issuing state’s law governs to the extent the judgment is nonmodifiable, and Alabama’s law governs to the extent it is modifiable.

The original judgment was in Mississippi, after which the mother and child moved to Louisiana. The father has resided continuously in Alabama. Pursuant to its own law the Mississippi order required the father to pay child support until age 21 and set the amount at $250 per month. 13 years later, in response to the mother’s request for an increase in child support, the father wrote the mother expressing his intention to pay $750 per month. Three years after that, however, he unilaterally decreased his monthly support to $600 and then 18 months later to $500. At no time until this case, however, did the parties attempt to change the original court order from Mississippi.

This case resulted from the mother’s 2003 filing in Mobile County Juvenile Court of a “motion” (actually a petition) for modification and rule nisi (enforcement) in Alabama. After amendment, the mother’s petition alleged that she and the father had entered into a contract increasing child support to $750 and claimed an arrearage based on this amount. The appeals court didn’t say it, but she also apparently requested funding for college after the child reached the age of 21.

The issues before the juvenile court, therefore, were (a) whether child support should stop at age 19 pursuant to Alabama law or continue until age 21 pursuant to Mississippi law; (b) if child support were to continue, how should it be calculated; (c) whether and to what extent the court should enforce the “agreement” of the parties to increase child support; and (d) whether the court should order the father to pay college expenses after the child reached age 21.

The juvenile court ruled that Mississippi law governed both the duration and the modification of child support. Applying Mississippi law, the juvenile court ruled that (a) child support would continue until age 21; (b) current child support would be set at $712.50 per month (apparently according to Mississippi guidelines); (c) the original order setting child support at $250 per month remained unmodified (giving no effect to the parties’ “agreement”); and (d) the father would pay his share of college expenses incurred before the child reached the age of 21 but that the father would have no duty to pay expenses incurred after age 21.

The appeals court stated that this was a case of first impression in Alabama. The appeals court quoted from the Official Comment to UIFSA (Uniform Interstate Family Support Act), which expressly states that the forum state (in this case Alabama) may not end a support obligation earlier than that set by the issuing state (in this case Mississippi). Accordingly, the appeals court affirmed the juvenile court on this issue.

The appeals court reversed the juvenile court, however, on the issue of the standard for modification, ruling that it should have applied Alabama law because the amount of child support is modifiable. The appeals court affirmed the juvenile court on its handling of the “agreement” question and the payment of college expenses.

The appeals court’s discussion of the “agreement” question contains an exploration of the doctrine of “invited error.” The mother argued on appeal that the juvenile court should have applied Louisiana law (where the mother lived) to the issue of the agreement. The mother’s lawyer had argued forcefully before the juvenile court, however, that Mississippi law applied to it.

The appeals court quoted from Mobile Infirmary Med. Ctr. v. Hodgen. 884 So. 2d 801, 808 (Ala. 2003):

‘A party may not predicate an argument for reversal on “invited error,” that is, “error into which he has led or lulled the trial court.”‘ Atkins v. Lee, 603 So. 2d 937, 945 (Ala. 1992) (quoting Dixie Highway Express, Inc. v. Southern Ry., 286 Ala. 646, 651, 244 So. 2d 591, 595 (1971)). ‘That doctrine [of invited error] provides that a party may not complain of error into which he has led the court.’ Ex parte King, 643 So. 2d 1364, 1366 (Ala. 1993). ‘A party cannot win a reversal on an error that party has invited the trial court to commit.’ Neal v. Neal, 856 So. 2d 766, 784 (Ala. 2002).”).